Nostalgia Done Right In COBRA KAI

A couple of years ago, I learned that The Karate Kid would be rebooted as a television series. Like others of a certain age that grew up with a particular property, I had my doubts. Rebooting or bringing back a franchise, whatever you want to call it, is a risky move. You have to appeal both to an already built-in audience or one that has some familiarity with it, but also attract new (a.k.a. young) viewers. As with gambling, the result is not always what you expect.

Not a reboot, but the 2014 movie, Dumb and Dumber To, came out 20 years after the original. The original is funny because it features young goofballs doing crazy things. In the sequel, they’re in their 50s doing the exact same schtick, and it just does not work. The same goes for the Beavis and Butthead revival, they’re doing 1995 actions in the 2010s. This is the wrong way to capture nostalgia.

Properties, where we see it done well, is in last year’s Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. It beautifully recreates that Muppet magic with a tasteful use of CGI (ex: magical scenes, certain action pieces etc.). Mad Max: Fury Road does the same with bringing back things we love from the Mad Max series and sprinkling dashes of new elements. The series Cobra Kai falls in this category of doing nostalgia right.

Narrative Beats

A nice touch done in season one of Cobra Kai is following some of the story beats from the first Karate Kid. In the first movie, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is the new kid in town, and he has a run-in with some local bullies. During a beatdown, he is saved by his building maintenance man Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), who later trains Daniel to defend himself. They use those same beats, done differently, in the first episode.

Nostalgia Done Right In COBRA KAI
source: Netflix

Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is now our Miyagi, believe it or not. Johnny is now a repair man in a building that resembles the one from the first film, and he saves a new kid, Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) from bullies. Feeling sorry for him, Johnny agrees to train him in karate, but Cobra Kai style.

Throughout the first season, the narrative parallels that of the first movie, but with slight changes that keep it fresh. Training for the All-Valley Tournament plays a part, Miguel takes a girl on a date to Golf N Stuff like Daniel took Ali to in the first movie, and Johnny helps Miguel with his costume for the Halloween dance like Mr. Miyagi did for Daniel ( instead of a shower, it’s the skeleton outfit the Cobra Kai wore in the first movie).

Cobra Kai keeps the mentor/student relationship like The Karate Kid, but gives viewers a nice “what if a kid went the Cobra Kai route instead of the Miyagi one”? Additionally, it keeps intact the story’s spirit of a kid who feels out of place, just wanting to be accepted, and most importantly, to be confident. While the series does a splendid job with the story beats, it continues to elevate itself with the use of familiar sounds and images.

Familiar Sounds and Images

Great movies contain iconic sounds and images that burn into the minds of viewers, making them instantly recognizable. Viewers see clips of the shower scene from PsychoGene Kelly dancing in the rain, or Indiana Jones running from a giant boulder; and they’re immortalized. The Karate Kid, with its Crane Kick and other items, regularly pop up in Cobra Kai. 

Nostalgia Done Right In COBRA KAI
source: Netflix

Later in the first season, Daniel LaRusso gets his own student to mentor in karate. In these scenes, Daniel applies familiar actions from the movie like “wax on, wax off”, “paint the fence”, and recreates the moment from the first film when Daniel comes to realize that these chores are actually part of Miyagi’s unusual teaching method. The use of clips from the movie series as flashbacks is a nice touch too.

The 1980s are known, and parodied, for the use of montages. Rocky IV, my favorite sequel of the series, must fill probably 40% of its running time with montages. The Karate Kid series is montage-heavy, and Cobra Kai applied that technique to the series. We see similar training montages, the first day of school scene in season two uses Bananarama‘s Cruel Summer like in the first movie, and Miguel’s date uses a similar montage (with the photo booth!). The series successfully balances these scenes that made the movies great and were able to add something fresh to it.

Fresh Ingredients

Bullying, as we know, can come in different forms. I like how in this series that, besides physical bullying, they address cyberbullying and how damaging it is to teenagers. As well as other issues young people have to deal with like body-shaming. Besides addressing how bullying has changed since the 80s, the karate in the series is also a bit different.

Nostalgia Done Right In COBRA KAI
source: Netflix

The movies, for me, have always been character pieces. Watching how characters grow, and how relationships are formed, the karate remained secondary. It wasn’t exactly on the level of Fist of Fury or The Raid: Redemption. With the series, according to the IMDB trivia page, the young performers have backgrounds in dance or already have black belts, making the fighting seem more real. Additionally, the long karate fight scene in the final episode of season two is extraordinary.

As mentioned earlier, this series is a character drama. I enjoy what they did with the Daniel and Johnny characters, where Johnny gets more sympathy from viewers than Daniel (in my view). Showing us what happens to the ones who don’t win the tournament, and the direction their lives take, and the journey to redemption.

Final Thoughts on Cobra Kai

Cobra Kai did the task that many reboots fail to do, which is to honor the source material and offer something new to a franchise. The show maintains the heart of the movies that will please fans, and attract a generation of new ones. The use of movie clips as flashbacks should also encourage new fans to check the movies out.

Overall, this is an absolutely fantastic series. I grew up on these movies, and it pleases me with the direction the showrunners took. The karate is great, the lessons are practical, I enjoy the new characters, and happy to see familiar faces again. Most importantly, I can’t wait to watch what season three has in store for us.

Are you a fan of the movies? What do you think of Cobra Kai? Please leave a comment below.

Cobra Kai is currently streaming on Netflix!

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